The Politics of Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy

Europe of Knowledge |

Darius Ornston

The shift to innovation-based competition has rekindled interest in the political economy of cooperation. Scholarly literature frequently characterizes innovation as an interactive process. New technologies, business models and social practices are rarely developed in isolation, but emerge within a dense network of enterprises, sub-contractors, end users and knowledge-generating institutions. But while scholars of innovation have extensively documented how cooperation can facilitate (and inhibit) innovation, its origins remain understudied. How is cooperation created? Under what conditions is it sustained? And when and why does it break down? Political science, which is primarily concerned with the logic of collective action, offers valuable tools to understand these dynamics, but they are too seldom applied to science, technology and innovation policy.


A recent special issue of the Review of Policy Research, published in September of 2014, represents an effort to foster greater dialogue between the two disciplines in order to understand the politics of cooperation in innovation. Papers were drawn from the Fifth Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy, an emerging forum for bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners of innovation policy. In Atlanta, and the special issue that followed, contributors explored the politics of cooperation in a variety of contexts, from the municipal level to the global, from advanced, industrialized economies to emerging markets and from highly coordinated European economies to their more pluralistic North American counterparts.


Exploring the Boundaries of Cooperation in Innovation

The first article, by Edurne Magro, Mikel Navarro and Jon Mikel Zabala-Iturriagagoitia, explores the politics of cooperation in innovation policy making. Magro, Navarro and Zabala-Iturriagagoitia illustrate how recent scholarship on innovation systems has led public sector actors to manipulate a growing number of instruments across multiple policy domains and jurisdictions. Focusing on Basque region, however, they find that actually existing levels of coordination rarely match our ambition to pursue systemic innovation policies. The article thus highlights the importance of resolving coordination failures in the public sector, suggesting that this task may be best accomplished through informal mechanisms.


Bryn Lander’s article, “The Role of Institutions and Capital in Intersectoral Collaboration” focuses on the private sector, and the Vancouver bio-medical industry in particular. Lander examines why some actors cooperate in innovative activities, while others do not. She demonstrates that cooperation is an attractive way for actors to access complementary forms of capital. Collaboration, however, is more likely to occur when actors are embedded within similar institutions. Lander finds that cognitive, cultural, and normative institutions are more important in this respect than formal rules or resources, with important implications for policy makers.


Shih-Hsin Chen examines how actors collaborate in newly industrializing societies. In her contribution, she challenges the widespread perception that recent industrializers such as Taiwan compete by applying imported technologies, “catching up” in established fields. Instead, she documents increasing collaboration between indigenous Taiwanese enterprises and knowledge-generating institutions as Taiwan approaches the technological frontier in biotechnology. This increase in cooperation did not occur spontaneously, but was actively cultivated by policy makers in an effort to bolster indigenous innovation.


Brian Sergi, Rachel Parker and Brian Zuckerman explore the prospects for cooperation beyond national borders. Globalization has increased interest in international collaboration as a strategy to access foreign expertise and capital. At the same geographic, social, and institutional distance pose formidable barriers to deeper cooperation. Sergi, Parker and Zuckerman illustrate how governments can reduce these obstacles, identifying an important if neglected role for the international offices of national research funding agencies.


I conclude the special issue on a cautionary note, highlighting the fragility of cooperation. More specifically, I argue that while Finland leveraged private-public, inter-firm, and industry-labor collaboration to enter new industries, high-technology competition has not had a reciprocal effect on cooperation. While high-technology enterprises may be more likely to cooperate with international partners, their domestic relationships have weakened over time. As a result, policy makers seeking to preserve postwar solidaristic ties through an innovation-based “high road” strategy should carefully consider the ways in which high-technology competition eroded cooperation in Finland.


Lessons Learned: How Cooperation Is Created and Sustained

Considered collectively, three major points emerge from this investigation of cooperation. First, while each of the authors support the literature on innovation by identifying the benefits of collaboration, they are also quick to note that it does not emerge spontaneously within either the government or the private sector. Innovative actors face formidable barriers to cooperation and policy makers can play an important role in helping actors navigate these obstacles at the local, national and global level.


Second, the interdisciplinary dialogue in this special issue yields important lessons for political scientists, who often characterize cooperation as a profoundly path-dependent process with complex, institutional prerequisites. The contributors, by contrast, identify an important role for collaboration within pluralist, market-oriented societies, historically statist economies and even at the global level. While hardly approaching the commitment to social cohesion that characterized postwar West European economies such as Finland, the special issue suggests that policy makers can foster cooperation in a wide variety of environments.


How do they do so? The articles in the special issue illuminate a third feature of cooperation, the power of informal institutions. Ideational and cultural differences pose a significant barrier to cooperation, not only internationally but also nationally and locally. At the same time, inter-personal relationships can enable actors to navigate complex policy-making environments and compensate for geographic distance. To this end, several contributors suggest that the development of personal relationships may prove a more effective way to promote collaboration than formal rules or financial incentives.


Dr. Darius Ornston is assistant professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Canada. In addition to his book, When Small States Make Big Leaps (Cornell University Press, 2012), his research on the politics of high-technology competition has appeared in Governance, Comparative Political Studies and West European Politics.